Sharifa Lookman ’17 on dance’s interdisciplinary role in the course “Repertory and Performance: Thank You For Coming”
Dec. 5, 2014 by slookman
Campus and Community Engagement Intern Sharifa Lookman ’17 reflects on interviews with Creative Campus Fellow Faye Driscoll and DanceLink Fellow Chloe Jones’15 in an examination of the interdisciplinary and multifaceted role of dance in the course “Repertory and Performance: Thank You For Coming.”
I like to pretend that I know what art is and what it means to be “artsy”. Three years of arts high school where I learned the color wheel while taking AP classes and doing volunteer work misguided me into thinking that I also knew what it meant to be “interdisciplinary”. As the Campus and Community Engagement Intern my understanding of and exposure to interdisciplinary arts has been redefined. The mission of the Creative Campus Initiative at Wesleyan’s Center for the Arts is to create curricular and co-curricular activities in the arts that promote creativity and innovation both for students and faculty as well as artists. The Creative Campus Fellowship, which brings working artists into a university environment to accrue research for their project while teaching a class, adds new depths to the interdisciplinary understanding of the visual and performing arts.
I had the opportunity to sit down with choreographer, dancer, and Wesleyan University Creative Campus Fellow in Dance Faye Driscoll and her student DanceLink Fellow Chloe Jones ‘15. Through this fellowship Driscoll is researching and developing the project Thank You For Coming: Playin addition to teaching the course “Repertory and Performance: Thank You For Coming: Play”, an opportunity to gather research for her project. In addition to being given the inside scoop into the class, I had the opportunity to look into the minds of two artists who are seeking to re-define the field of dance performance, in the process re-conceptualizing their physical and emotional selves.
Speaking with Driscoll helped to create, what I find to be, a very helpful vocabulary for both defining dance and its integration with the other disciplines and further relating such study to a reconceptualization of our physical and emotional selves. Driscoll describes the title Thank You For Coming: Play as being emblematic of the project itself, despite its changing nature “its also directive in some sense, the word, or command, because I’m dealing with the act of make-believe and creating belief.”
Speaking with Driscoll about her childhood brought back memories of mine, both involving precocious kids with a penchant for creativity. Faye describes her younger self as “one of those kids who just knew that was what I wanted to do from like the age of four”. Illustrative of the type A, whirlwind of a child we knew, and envied, from our childhood, Driscoll would put on shows by herself, what she describes as being “often very political things that I knew or heard about going on in the world and would make a piece about it or perform a poem that I wrote about it.” Driscoll underlined her passion for the art form with this quick and nostalgic glimpse into her childhood fueled with naivety and creativity. With refocused eyes Driscoll said in earnest, “I think I just have this need to do it.”
This inherent need and passion inspired her to pursue dance, a practice that she quickly learned was not dependent solely on creativity, but rather the interconnectivity of creative expression and discipline and technique. Recalling this realization Driscoll said, “I think at one point my mom said, ‘if you do really want to do this, you have to actually go to class. And I loved dance class. It was the structure that fueled my creativity.”
Perhaps like many Wesleyan students Driscoll grew up in an environment that fostered creativity and expression. “I think that I really responded to this kind of structure and discipline that dance gave me. I think that those two things are in my work still – a lot of structure, a lot of layers, and a lot of detail. And then also this sense of irreverence, this sense that I can make whatever I want from whatever is closest, nearest, and whatever I want to grab from I can.”
The structure of Driscoll’s work incorporates this naivety and creativity integral to childhood and juxtaposes it with technical training. Integral to Driscoll’s work is a disintegration of the social and disciplinary constructs of dance in which technique is separate from creative expression. Dricoll argues a connectivity of these two factors, but additionally notes her desire to do anything but. Integral to Driscoll’s work is a sense of hybridization and a focus on the interdisciplinary relationships in the visual and performing arts. In speaking with Driscoll she noted the idea of the studio as a laboratory, almost bringing the field of dance into a realm likened to that of science. This vernacular adds an interesting, and yet unintentional, interdisciplinary element.
Inherent in her work is a passion and argument for reimagining the arts in addition to a defense for dance as a unique discipline that should be recognized as such.
“I want dance to be more central and I think that dance is a very radical art form that is often kicked down, kicked to the curb and seen as a lesser form. So I kind of like enjoying calling it all dance even though someone might see it and say that’s its not dance, y’know saying, ‘where’s the pirouette?’”
Driscoll asserts some very interesting points. The contemporary organization of the visual and performing arts is based on integration of the arts, but there is a fine line between integration and diffusion. Everything gets shaped into one conglomerate and they work together, but then at the same time the hierarchies between disciplines aren’t always broken down. This raises questions that we should consider at the Center for the Arts. In addition to fostering the interdisciplinary nature of the arts, they do need to be classified in some capacity.
The notion of interdisciplinary is fostered here at Wesleyan. This can be seen in the testimony of Chloe Jones, a Dance and Hispanic Literatures & Cultures major. Originally, however, she started out as a College of Letters major. Though she shifted her academic interests while abroad she continued to foster this interdisciplinary approach to her education and learning. She said “ I had a professor in the College of Letters tell me once that it isn’t really interdisciplinary, its multidisciplinary in the way that you get to draw from all of these different disciplines and then its up to you to integrate them. I think it’s something that has really stuck with me over the past few years is this idea of like drawing from lots of different disciplines and then your job as the student is to make those connections.”
Jones attended Driscoll’s initial lecture with a friend who is a COL major and were so taken by it that they both decided to take the class. This shows that, though rooted in dance, it is a topic and project that addresses issues of the self with so much universality that it appeals to all disciplines.
Jones described the lecture itself: “It was so rich, so much depth, so tangible and relatable and just like raw. And I felt like I could really see some of the ideas that she was bringing up in the talk: this broad idea of what is means to be a body in a world of Somebodies. And what does it mean to sort of be a co-creator of this narrative/reality that we are all living and how do we play with that reality/narrative and these social tropes that we are all living inside of.”
Driscoll’s class was composed of all different majors, about a quarter of them dance majors. This combination made for a diverse group of students that were willing to take risks and enact things using their different academic interests.
Both Jones and Driscoll described the activities they performed in class, contributing two different perspectives that illustrate the true complexity and brilliance of the project. One component specifically noted is that of dialogue and text and its incorporation with movement.
“One of the other assignments was to go around and find people to subtly imitate and become so we collected people from campus. So I might put those two things (eavesdropping and imitation) next to each other. The stolen people and the stolen dialogue,” Driscoll said.
One assignment that they had was a dialogue experiment comprised of three parts: 1.) To eavesdrop on a conversation for 15-20 minutes without taking any notes, only to have to sit down and rewrite the entire dialogue solely from memory 2.) To recall, without the assistance of diaries or the like, a dialogue from our personal memory, our personal lives 3.) To transcribe a dialogue from a movie or a play also from memory. All of these recorded dialogues were then brought in and shared with the class.
Through this exercise, and ones similar, students and Driscoll played a lot with voice, an area of performance not often addressed in dance.
“I think I come from a very choreographic way of thinking about things. I’m also very visually and aurally oriented. I’m interested in the body and all that it is and all that the human being is and all that our bodies contain in terms of our selfhood and our histories and the politics of them. The way that they’re kind of loaded,” Driscoll said.
This integration of voice with the body proved challenging to Jones, but also constructive.
“And for me its been a pretty huge challenge because, as a dancer, I’m accustomed to using my body and manipulating my body and expressing myself through my body, but when it comes to my voice there have been times in class when I have totally choked up and have felt very vulnerable using my voice. At the same time I’ve felt really excited about this new possibility and this new kind of tool that I have to use. It’s one that Faye is really exploring with us — how we can use our voices and how we can hone that skill. There is so much there. The voice truly is an instrument,” Jones said.
In addition to exploring the physical, whether the limbs or vocal chords, this course also explored the emotional. In describing this emotional component Jones repeatedly described it as “intense” but according to Jones, an intensity that “fed them”. In a sense this course became an examination of the self.
“I’ve definitely learned a lot about myself. I think we all have. And I think that’s one of the reasons I’m a dance major. In a lot of my non-dance classes I feel like I do my work, close my book, and leave. And with dance I feel like I walk out of the studio in my body, which is what I’ve been using to practice, to learn, to think. So it goes with me everywhere. So I get to carry it with me everywhere and translate it into other areas of my life, and that’s something that is really exciting and important to me. And that’s something that holds very much true to Faye’s class too,” Jones said.
I began this blog post with about ten pages of quotations. My conversations with Driscoll and Jones were both so rich and evocative that I had no idea where to go, what to analyze, and how to consolidate what are grand scale ideas. I sat on this post for far too long while other small seemingly pressing tasks took priority. I was nervous about articulating this weighty notion of examining oneself, so fully and creatively, through art. It’s such an abstract notion and with that comes fleeting temporality. One can revel in the process, but then the process has to end. And yet Jones still said that she is going to remember this experience forever, noting the power of memory. This idea, juxtaposed alongside Driscoll’s analysis of her project, Thank You for Coming as something that is not “wrapped up” attributes a sense of fluidity to the understanding of artistic practices and creative epiphanies. Maybe there is never an end to these creative moments or ideas. Like Jones said, “This course has never been about the final performance.” Perhaps I’m reading far too deep into what was simply a beautiful and fruitful creative exercise, but I can’t help but find a comparison to life’s journey: whether a life led creatively or not, the objective is not to end up with a nicely wrapped product, but rather to emerge with beautiful ideas, unanswered questions, and an experimental analysis of the self, all still dancing through one’s memories.